Dilemma: How To Find Good Food
One tricky thing about being an expat is adjusting to new food every time you move. It might not be the most serious or emotional part of expat life, but it’s something that affects us every day, and in ways you might not expect.
Lots of supermarkets abroad don’t have items I'm used to buying; things like yoghurt, wholegrain bread, and avocados. In some cases, there are products similar to what I'm used to but they taste differently, are really hard to find, or outrageously expensive.
As a result, coming up with meals when I live abroad is a lot harder, and grocery shopping with a list is hit-or-miss. So it's important to be flexible, learn to cook new dishes, make do with whatever there is, and hunt for good restaurants.
But it’s also difficult to adjust to foreign food physically. In some countries the food is notorious for causing stomach issues–particularly tropical countries. I had a heck of a time in Nigeria and Pakistan–I couldn't handle the food, even though I liked it.
So we expats have our ways; to make sure we get the food we love we go through great lengths to bring, order, and otherwise stash our favorites. Here is how we do it:
1. SUITCASE STASHING
I used to pity those people at the airport who had their suitcases stuffed with edibles. I didn’t get it; surely, there is food wherever they were going? Why not bring some unique souvenirs with you instead?
But I get it now. Worse: I’ve become one of those people. Whenever I travel from back to post I bring things like vegan mayonnaise, chocolate sprinkles, gum, peanut butter, licorice, cookies, and hot sauce. I pack my suitcase to the max with this kind of stuff, and I buy more at the airport when I can.
2. CONSUMABLE SHIPMENT
Diplomats get to ship food items to their new posts if they go to a country where few “western” products are available. For example, we were allowed to ship 2,500 pounds of groceries to Nigeria, to Pakistan and to Armenia, but not to Uruguay or to the Netherlands.
There are a number of ways to get consumables to your post. You can send it along with your household goods, or order it later through friends or companies who specialize in this stuff. Personally I always go for the former option. I stock up BIG at Costco before we leave.
American diplomats also have access to something called “the commissary”, which is basically a small store in the embassy that sells American foods like frozen meat, bacon, chips, cake mixes, sauces, alcohol, canned goods, and toiletries.
At the commissary diplomats pay around 70% markup due to the shipping costs, but it can be a real life-safer when you throw a party and you want some American nacho chips, pretzels, marshmallows, and or solo cups!
4. AMAZON PANTRY
Diplomats also get to order stuff through the diplomatic pouch and, at some posts, through military DPO. Although there are restrictions–especially on liquids–it means we can order a fair amount of dry food items online. And since there is such a thing as Amazon Pantry it’s becoming easier and more affordable every day.
5. LOCAL SPECIALTY STORES
Still, there are things you can’t bring or order online like fresh produce and baked goods. Things I typically miss overseas are avocados, good bread, and vegan-proof items in general.
In the embassy, the employee association helps its paying members by organizing food deliveries from farms and trusted butchers on regular schedules. It’s pricier than buying at the store or the market, but it’s convenient and it definitely increases our options.
In other cases, the only option is to look around town and find specialty stores or restaurants that sell good stuff. Expats get quite creative with these things and often share tips on where to buy the best cheese, wine, pastries, beer, and wine.